In 1938, a group of freshmen at the University of Michigan circulated a petition asking that a psychology lecture be rescheduled to avoid a conflict with a football game. The upperclassmen who signed it read the full text in the undergraduate newspaper the following day:
We, the undersigned, hereby petition that the lecture in Psychology 2 be changed from Saturday to Wednesday afternoon. By signing this document without reading it we cheerfully disqualify ourselves as candidates for any degree conferred by this university. We furthermore declare that the freshmen are our superiors in wit and wisdom, and that our stupidity is surpassed only by the mental lethargy of the underpaid faculty that teaches us.
I can’t find a report of the fallout, but there sure must have been some. “Carelessness,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “does more harm than a want of knowledge.”
A hoax which did not deceive the learned, but sorely puzzled them, was that known as the Dutch Mail hoax. Some fifty years ago, an article appeared in the Leicester Herald, an English provincial paper, under the title of ‘The Dutch Mail,’ with the announcement that it had arrived too late for translation, and so had been set up and printed in the original. Much attention was attracted to the article, and many Dutch scholars rushed into print to say that it was not in any dialect with which they were acquainted. Finally it was discovered to be a hoax. Sir Richard Phillips, the editor of the paper, recently told this story of how the jest was conceived and carried out: ‘One evening, before one of our publications, my men and a boy overturned two or three columns of the paper in type. We had to get ready someway for the coaches, which, at four in the morning, required four or five hundred papers. After every exertion, we were short nearly a column, but there stood a tempting column of ‘pi’ [a jumble of odd letters] on the galleys. It suddenly struck me that this might be thought Dutch. I made up the column, overcame the scruples of the foreman, and so away the country edition went with its philological puzzle to worry the honest agricultural readers’ heads. There was plenty of time to set up a column of plain English for the local edition.’ Sir Richard met one man in Nottingham who for thirty years preserved a copy of the Leicester Herald hoping that some day the letter would be explained.
– Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888
Author Octavus Roy Cohen was visiting a friend in Colorado when the surprising word came that Cohen himself would be speaking at a men’s luncheon club in Denver. Bewildered, the two attended the luncheon and watched an impostor give a “splendid literary talk.”
After this, the program director announced a surprise guest — Edna Ferber. Cohen had always wanted to meet Ferber, but to avoid embarrassing the club he held his peace and watched his impostor trade compliments with the guest author.
On his next visit to New York, he called Ferber. “I’m Octavus Roy Cohen,” he said, “the man you thought you met recently in Denver –”
“What are you talking about?” she said. “I haven’t been in Denver in years.”
Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography was a mainstay reference in the 19th century, a six-volume work describing 20,000 eminent people in the U.S. and thousands more throughout the Americas.
Unfortunately, many of its subjects are not real people. In its zeal to profile every noteworthy person in the New World, Appletons’ had paid by the word and accepted submissions uncritically, and it seems that at least 200 of its detailed biographies were invented out of thin air.
Who did this? No one knows, but curiously the fake biographies show as much diligence as the real ones: A 1937 investigation showed that the anonymous writer had invented titles in six languages, showed signs of scientific training, and knew the history and geography of South America. Why go to so much trouble to lie?
See Reference Work.
Fifty-one voters of Milton, Wash. (Tacoma suburb) last week marked their ballots for one Boston Curtis, Republican candidate for precinct committeeman. Boston Curtis was elected. Milton’s Mayor Kenneth Simmons, a Democrat, chortled hugely. He, who had sponsored Candidate Curtis and filed his papers, had proved his point that voters ‘have no idea whom they support.’ Boston Curtis is a large brown mule.
– Time, Sept. 26, 1938
During the Depression, magazines and newspapers regularly carried advertisements for “talent bureaus” promising to assess the writing of undiscovered authors. Sensing a scam, Author & Journalist editor Willard Hawkins asked his daughter to compose “the most impossible, inane and childish semblance of a story that it was possible to conceive.” She obliged with “Her Terrible Mistake,” the story of 17-year-old Mary Jane Smith, who “fell devinely in love with a very nice fellow who was a machinic by the name of Jack Berry.” When a stranger seduces Mary Jane, her “fionce” exposes him as “a villian in sheeps clothing.”
Universal Scenario Co. of Hollywood declared this “admirably suited to talking picture presentation” and for $10 offered to submit it “personally to those producers whose current production demands call for this particular type of story.”
Encouraged, Hawkins now had Lottie Perkins write a 30,000-word novel, The Missing Twin:
‘Mr. Jones I think something has happened at home. I think we ought to have left someone to take care of our children. What will I do if someone has kidnapped them out from under my nose. How can you sit there and let them be stolen from me. O my babies. How could anyone be so crule as to steel you.’
Economy Publishers of Tacoma, Wash., read this “with ever increasing pleasure and admiration for the author. My! how your characters live and breathe and walk out into the room before one … !” They agreed to publish the book for $375, returning 40 percent of all royalties to Perkins.
In the end, Author & Publisher found that in most such cases, the publisher printed only about 100 copies — and profited $200.
Fritz Kreisler had already gained immortality as a violin virtuoso when in 1935 he revealed that he was also a composer — for 30 years he had been performing his own compositions in concert but attributing them to Vivaldi, Couperin, Porpora, and Pugnani.
In the uproar that followed, Kreisler argued that as a young man he’d had no reputation; audiences would not have paid to hear the compositions of an unknown violinist. That was just the point, opined the Philadelphia Record: Fans had bought the pieces, and indeed other violinists had performed them, thinking them the work of established composers.
The Portland Oregonian agreed: “What if Fritz Kreisler had died without making confession that over a period of thirty years he had been composing music and signing to it the names of half-forgotten composers of former times? What if he had left no list of his works?”
Which raises an interesting question: How many such hoaxes have succeeded? How many of our great works of art are undiscovered forgeries?
David Starr Jordan announced an exciting breakthrough in Popular Science Monthly in 1896: He’d asked seven people to think of a cat and then used a special device to capture their mental images and combine them into a composite picture, “the impression of ultimate feline reality.”
Jordan had intended the piece as a “gentle satire” of then-prevalent experiments in mental photography, but to his horror the readers took it seriously:
One clergyman even went so far as to announce a series of six discourses on “the Lesson of the Sympsychograph,” while many others welcomed the alleged discovery as verifying what they had long believed, and an eminent professor soberly opined that my reputation as a psychologist would not be enhanced by such discoveries!
He later wrote that the experience had taught him two lessons: “first, that very few people ever read a sensational article through to the end, even much beyond pictures and headlines, and second, that with Dr. Holmes, I should never again ‘dare to write as funny as I can.’”
Readers of the Madison, Wis., Capital-Times had a scare on April 1, 1933 — a front-page photo showed that the state capitol had collapsed.
The words “April Fool” appeared in small type both in the caption and at the end of the accompanying article, but readers were not amused.
“There is such a thing as carrying a joke too far,” wrote one, “and this one was not only tactless and void of humor as well, but also a hideous jest.”
Published in London’s Wide World Magazine in 1898, Louis de Rougemont’s adventures in Oceania made a sensation: He had witnessed octopus attacks on the pearl fishers of New Guinea, rode turtles while a castaway on an anonymous Pacific islet, and spent 30 swashbuckling years as a god-king among Australian cannibals. Here he’s beset by migrating rats:
It was impossible for me to observe in what order the rats were advancing, on account of the great stretch of country which they covered. Soon, however, their shrill squeals were distinctly heard, and a few minutes later the edge of that strange tide struck our tree and swept past us with a force impossible to realise. No living thing was spared. Snakes, lizards–ay, even the biggest kangaroos–succumbed after an ineffectual struggle. The rats actually ate those of their fellows who seemed to hesitate or stumble. The curious thing was that the great army never seemed to stand still. It appeared to me that each rat simply took a bite at whatever prey came his way, and then passed on with the rest.
In September an F.W. Solomon wrote in to say that he recognized the author — he was a Swiss manservant named Louis Grien whose nearest approach to the Outback had been a stint as butler to the governor of Western Australia. After some temporizing, De Rougemont vanished; he reappeared the following year in a South African music hall, billing himself as “The Greatest Liar on Earth.”
In 1800, robber and housebreaker Pierre Coignard was sentenced to 14 years’ hard labor in the prison at Toulon. After five years he escaped, journeyed to Catalonia, assumed the identity of a local nobleman, won glory fighting in the Spanish ranks, entered the French army, rose to become a decorated colonel …
… and was recognized in Paris by one of his former cellmates.
He was tried, convicted, and returned to the same prison he had escaped 18 years earlier.
After discovering a talent for forgery during the Civil War, James Reavis headed west and started one of the most ambitious hoaxes of all time. He invented a Spanish nobleman named Miguel de Peralta, devised his entire family tree, and began assiduously forging documents claiming 10 million acres of prime Arizona land for the don’s descendants. Then he traveled throughout Spain and Mexico, carefully seeding libraries and archives with the forged deeds, mortgages, and wills.
When all was ready, he went before the U.S. surveyor general in 1881 and showed that rights to these lands now belonged to him. He imposed taxes on residents throughout Arizona, including the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Silver King Mine, but when their lawyers sought to challenge the claims they found Reavis’ carefully forged documents on file.
The ruse made Reavis one of the richest land barons in Arizona, and soon he’d bought mansions in New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Mexico. But it all lasted less than 10 years, unraveling in 1890 when a Spanish linguist detected the forgeries. Reavis served six years in prison and spent the rest of his life on the streets of Santa Fe.
In February 1852, the New York Tribune published an account by a Charles Seabury, master of the whaleship Monongahela, of a titanic struggle with a sea serpent in the South Pacific. The crew harpooned the 103-foot monster on Jan. 13 and killed it with lances the following morning:
None of the crew who witnessed that terrible scene will ever forget it; the evolutions of the body were rapid as lightning, seeming like the revolving of a thousand enormous black wheels. The tail and head would occasionally appear in the surging bloody foam, and a sound was heard, so dead, unearthly, and expressive of acute agony, that a thrill of horror ran through our veins.
The serpent was too large to get into port, so the crew resolved to save the skin, head, and bones. As they were dissecting the creature they encountered the brig Gipsy, to whom Seabury gave his story. “As soon as I get in I shall be enabled to furnish you a more detailed account.”
That’s the story. But neither Seabury, his serpent, nor his detailed account ever appeared, and the Gipsy later told the Philadelphia Bulletin that it had never met such a ship. By that time the original 2700-word account had run in Galignani’s Messenger, the Illustrated London News, the London Times, and Spenerishe Zeitung.
Zoologist editor Edward Newman concludes, “Very like a hoax, but well drawn up.” You can decide for yourself — the original account is here.
In the 1840s P.T. Barnum found himself a victim of his own success. His New York museum of curiosities proved so popular that it was regularly filled to capacity and could admit no more customers.
Barnum studied the problem and hired a carpenter. Soon a new door appeared in the museum with a sign reading THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS.
Those who followed it found themselves on Ann Street.
Canada saw a sensation in 1836 — a woman named Maria Monk claimed to have been a nun in a Montreal convent where priests from the nearby seminary would enter through a secret tunnel, force sex on the terrified nuns, and dispose horribly of any resulting children:
[Father Larkin] first put oil upon the heads of the infants, as is the custom before baptism. When he had baptized the children, they were taken, one after another, by one of the old nuns, in the presence of us all. She pressed her hand upon the mouth and nose of the first so tight that it could not breathe, and in a few minutes, when the hand was removed, it was dead. She then took the other and treated it in the same way. No sound was heard, and both the children were corpses. The greatest indifference was shown by all present during this operation; for all, as I well knew, were long accustomed to such scenes. The little bodies were then taken into the cellar, thrown into the pit I have mentioned, and covered with a quantity of lime.
Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk became a bestseller, but an investigation showed that the whole thing had been a fake; Monk had apparently never even visited the convent. She fled to Philadelphia, wrote an unsuccessful sequel, had a child out of wedlock, and died in 1839.
“Spirit photographs” created by hoaxer William Hope in 1919.
From left: Mr. and Mrs. Gibson with their deceased son; Mrs. Longcake with her dead sister-in-law; the Rev. Charles Tweedale and his wife, with her father.
Arthur Conan Doyle (below, center) defended Hope even when skeptic Harry Price had shown that he was manipulating his plates. “The credulity of dupes,” wrote Edmund Burke, “is as inexhaustible as the invention of knaves.”
In 1885, explorer Richard Willoughby claimed to have discovered a wonderful mirage above Alaska’s Muir glacier: He’d seen a modern city, he said, with buildings, church towers, vessels, even citizens. This photograph sold “like hot cakes” in the summer of 1889, and Willoughby sold the negative to a San Francisco photographer for $500.
There it all unraveled. An American consul, home from England, noted that the “silent city” bore a striking resemblance to Bristol. It turned out that Willoughby had paid an English tourist $10 for an overexposed photo of his hometown, and the rest was hot air. Still, he deserves credit for invention.
Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola told an inspiring story: Born in West Africa, he wandered to the sea at age 7 and found himself aboard a steamer bound for Scotland. From there he made his way to the United States, where he took up lecturing. His 1930 autobiography, LoBagola; An African Savage’s Own Story, gives vivid details about life in the bush:
“If you should climb a tree, the lion can easily get help from the elephant, because the elephant and the lion are friendly. … [T]he lion tells the elephant that it wants you down from the tree, and the elephant shakes the tree or pulls it up by the roots, and down you come.”
The truth was more prosaic: His real name was Joseph Lee and he was born in Baltimore. “Small opportunities,” wrote Demosthenes, “are often the beginning of great enterprises.”
Workers were digging a well in New York in 1869 when they made a sensational discovery: a 10-foot man made of stone.
Was it an ancient statue? A huge petrified human? The truth turned out to be more mundane: The “Cardiff Giant” had been carved out of gypsum and deliberately buried by a New York tobacconist named George Hull. He turned a good profit: His $2,600 investment sold for $37,500 when it was “discovered.”
The continuing hysteria drove profits higher, and P.T. Barnum offered $60,000 to lease it for three months. Rebuffed, he built his own plaster replica and decried the original as a fake, leading exhibitor David Hannum to grumble, “There’s a sucker born every minute” — a remark later misattributed to Barnum himself.
Eventually the whole thing blew over; by 1870 both giants had been revealed as fake. But the old gypsum carving still makes a good show — it’s on display today in a Cooperstown, N.Y., museum.
That’s Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, as captured by “spirit photographer” William H. Mumler.
The story goes that Mary sat for the photo in the early 1870s, when she had taken the name Lindall, and that the photographer didn’t know her identity until the exposure revealed the martyred president.
That’s the story. Skeptics immediately accused Mumler of fakery, and he didn’t win any friends with his new career, “revealing” the ghosts of Civil War dead for their grieving families.
That practice was too low even for P.T. Barnum (!), who testified against Mumler in a fraud trial in 1869. He was acquitted, but he died penniless in 1884.
Perhaps Mumler really had discovered an astonishing new technique … but it seems telling that his own ghost has never been photographed.
When Gregor MacGregor returned to England from the New World in 1820, he brought auspicious news: He had been created prince of Poyais, a Central American nation of 12,500 square miles.
The Scottish soldier became the toast of London and was soon entertaining dignitaries at elaborate banquets. He published a glowing guidebook, raised a loan of £200,000 for his new government, and began selling land rights to excited settlers.
But when two ships arrived at the described location in 1823, they found nothing but jungle. Lacking shelter and beset by disease, the settlers had to be evacuated to British Honduras, and only 70 of the 250 survived. A warning reached London in time to stop five additional ships from making the voyage.
A furor erupted, but by that time MacGregor had left for France, where he attempted the same hoax. Officials there locked him up, but he was acquitted at trial and brazenly returned to England, where he kept up similar schemes through 1837. He died, blithely, in Venezuela in 1845.
Grey Owl (1888-1938), left, a pioneer in Canadian conservation, turned out to be Archibald Belaney, a farmer’s son from Hastings, England.
Two Moon Meridas (1888-1933), right, a promoter of herbal medicines, was really Chico Colon Meridas.
Meridas must have been pretty convincing — when he was indicted in 1932, 26 Sioux spoke in his defense.
In the 1920s, American painter and eccentric Waldo Peirce gave a turtle to the concierge of the building in which he lived. She was delighted with the gift and took great care of her new pet, and she did not notice when Peirce secretly replaced it with a slightly larger turtle. This continued for some time, with Peirce sneaking successively larger turtles into her apartment while she praised her miraculous pet to the neighbors.
Then, after a suitable pause, he began using smaller turtles.
In 1883, the assistant telegraph editor of the Boston Globe invented the story of a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific, purportedly related by the captain of a freight steamer. Editorial writer Florence Finch Kelly later recalled:
The tale he told was truly one of horrific happenings — what looked like a whole island blown into the sky, showers of ashes that darkened the sunlight and covered his decks inches deep, great blocks of ice in the midst of red-hot streams of lava, the ocean bubbling with heat from these torrents of fire, tons of fish killed by the heated ocean water and floating dead on its surface, and many another marvel fit to make even a tough old sea captain’s eyes pop from his head.
The story filled several columns on the Globe‘s front page, and it was picked up in New York, London, and Chicago. Only later did reports arrive of a catastrophe in Indonesia: “With his imaginary volcanic eruption, Mr. Soames had closely hit in time and place the explosion of Krakatoa, the greatest volcanic eruption of modern times, and in his account he had included many phenomena that were paralleled in later descriptions of the actual outburst! Did the vagaries of chance ever direct the long arm of coincidence to a more amazing result?”
(UPDATE: In Media Hoaxes , Fred Fedler reports that the editor’s story was based on early cables from London regarding the volcano’s eruption. He embellished the cables’ scant information with surmised details based on library research, and these proved to be surprisingly accurate. So the truth is much less impressive than Kelly’s account — or than that published by Frank Edwards in two books in the 1950s.)